Reeves in China

In the video above Judith Magee, Museum curator of rare books, manuscripts and artwork, introduces John Reeves and his collection.

John Reeves was a man with a passion for natural history who spent nearly 20 years in China working as a tea inspector. While there, he employed locals to collect and record plants and animals from China and Asia. The John Reeves collection is an enormous contribution to the study of natural history.

Watercolour of Canton by Henry Fletcher Hance

A typical factory in Canton, similar to those of the East India Company when John Reeves was working there. Watercolour and bodycolour,  c1853, by Henry Fletcher Hance (1827-1886).

John Reeves was a keen amateur naturalist and artist. Born in Essex in 1774, he joined the British East India Company and was posted to Canton, now Guangzhou, in southern China where he worked as a tea inspector from 1812-1831.

While in China he pursued his passion for natural history, amassing an astonishing collection of botanical and zoological specimens and paintings. He was encouraged by influential patrons and by the East India Company, which wanted to find out about plants and animals from around the world for trade.

By Reeves’ time, Canton was one of the world’s greatest ports, more prosperous and sophisticated than London, Europe’s biggest city. Its markets saw a thriving trade in goods from around the world, especially exotic plants and animals from all over Asia.

Because Europeans were not allowed to travel freely in China, and because business could only be conducted through licensed Chinese merchants known as the Hong, Reeves built a network of local contacts to supply him with specimens from within China and all over Asia.

Watercolour of the Reeves' pheasant, Syrmaticus reevesii

Reeves’ pheasant, Syrmaticus reevesii. Watercolour from the John Reeves collection, c1812-1831.

Reeves commissioned local artists to draw and paint a great variety of mammals, reptiles, birds, molluscs, fishes and plants. Their work records what specimens looked like in life and shows key features that distinguish them from other species. Scientists still refer to these first iconic images today.

In recognition of his contribution to natural history, Reeves was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society in 1817. He died in 1856, aged 81, with 27 species named after him.